No one at Nabisco’s corporate headquarters in New York City had any idea why members of the National Organization for Women were lined up outside. It was the fall of 1971, and the manufacturer best known for their Oreo and Chips Ahoy! snacks had not made any obviously sexist advertisements or taken any particular political stance. They sold cookies.
Then they read the signs: “Sick toys for children make for a sick society.”
That May, Nabisco had attempted to diversify by purchasing Aurora Company, the West Hempstead, New York model kit maker best known for their plastic kits of Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and other horror film icons. The cheap plastic toys came in pieces and could be glued together and painted.
Unknown to Nabisco, Aurora had recently branched out and begun offering entire model kit dioramas. Instead of a single figure, consumers could buy detailed “sets” for their monsters to interact with. There was a guillotine, a razor-sharp pendulum, and a laboratory; a female protagonist, referred to in the copy as “the Victim,” was scantily-clad and ready to be dismembered, beheaded, or trapped in a spiked cage. Kids could also opt to have Vampirella, the top-heavy villain licensed from Warren Publishing, operate the winch and pulley while her plastic captive was shackled to a table.
Each kit also contained a comic, which instructed builders on how to assemble the torture scenes for maximum enjoyment. A narrator named Dr. Deadly seemed to opine on the appeal of the Victim once she was fully assembled. “Now that you’ve gotten her all together, I think I like the other way. In pieces … yesssss.”
In addition to Fig Newtons, Nabisco realized it had also been peddling tiny torture racks.
Since its inception in 1952, Aurora had seen enormous success by exploring the horror genre. As television came into prominence and late movies screened the classic Universal monster films of the 1930s, a new generation of monster buffs had been nourished. Kits featuring Dracula, the Mummy, and even Godzilla were cheap to produce and sell. (Many models retailed for just 98 cents.) Having the consumer construct them with contact cement and model paint gave them a sense of accomplishment.
Aurora held contests for custom kits, highlighting winners in monster magazines. By the 1960s, they had started noticing that a lot of submissions revolved around expansive, morbid scenarios: a mad scientist’s laboratory, or an execution motif. To Aurora, it was a clear indication that their consumers wanted context for their models.
In 1964, the company unveiled its Chamber of Horrors Guillotine, which featured an unfortunate male sentenced to death via a chopping blade: once activated, his head could be retrieved from the basket, re-attached, and executed once again.
While the toy did have some precedent in 1700s France—a two-foot-tall guillotine was popular among children, some of whom used it to decapitate rodents—there was some minor furor from parents, and Aurora didn’t pursue the line.
Six years later, the company felt the cultural climate was ready for something more provocative: They began developing a line dubbed Monster Scenes. Using generic characters like the Victim, designers concocted elaborate scenarios that put the unfortunate captives in mortal peril.
One scenario had a mad scientist hovering over his captive with a tray full of hot coals and a set of tongs; another designed after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum featured a swinging blade that would cleave the Victim in two. (Or at least nudge her side; once assembled, the toys didn’t easily come back apart.)
Aurora also pursued the license for Vampirella, a buxom vampire featured in James Warren’s horror periodicals: Warren sold a lot of Aurora kits via his mail order business, and a decision was made to include his character in the line rather than risk dissolving a partnership. Unpainted, she appeared to be virtually naked. Her counterpart, the Victim, sported hot pants and a halter top; a dress or flowing skirt was deemed impractical in order to have her fit on the torture rack.
In a big departure from previous kits, the Monster Scenes featured snap-on parts, the better to lure in consumers who were concerned over fumes from glue or contact cement. Once assembled, the characters could be placed in the Pain Cage, the Pain Parlor, and other disturbing scenarios.
Eager to trumpet their daring new line, Aurora’s marketing made the unfortunate choice of plastering each box with a stamp: “Rated ‘X’ for Excitement!” In an included comic book, Vampirella quells concern that someone might hear the Victim screaming by saying, “Don’t worry—this is New York. No one will help her.” (The gallows humor was later interpreted to be a reference to Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered in 1964 while apartment-dwellers nearby did nothing.)
Monster Scenes debuted at the Hobby Industry Association of America’s trade show in February 1971. Aurora hired model Nina Anderson to demonstrate the playsets, which attracted a stream of curious media members. Anderson, not particularly versed in the features, made a show of lopping off arms and legs before an angry Aurora executive told her the parts weren’t meant for that.
But Anderson had perfected her sales pitch. Of Vampirella, she told the Chicago Sun-Times that the busty character could be placed in a cage to “make her a go-go girl.”
Still, Aurora thought they had a hit. They even began to sketch out plans to license DC Comics's Lois Lane as a marquee “victim.”
Aurora began shipping the kits in March 1971. The characters—Vampirella, Doctor Deadly, the Victim, and Frankenstein—were $1.30, while the dioramas retailed for $2. There was no overestimating adolescent interest. By the fall, approximately 800,000 of the kits had been sold.
According to Aurora, the toys were paradoxically healthy for young consumers, allowing them to overcome fearful scenarios by having control over them. The company said it had consulted with psychiatrists prior to producing the torture scenes and found no objection.
But parents objected plenty. Letters came in to syndicated newspaper columns and to company headquarters. Kids wrote, too, but with requests for more sets to be added; they wanted gallows, a bed of nails, man-eating plants, and wheels of torture.
In her syndicated advice column, Ann Landers weighed in:
"For $1.99 you can own a doll named Vampirella. She comes equipped with a beaker of blood. If all this isn’t symptomatic of a warped society, I’d like to know what is."
Under fire by NOW and other activism groups, Nabisco was horrified to see headlines in The New York Times and other papers calling attention to the fact that one of its subsidiaries was peddling toys of victimized women in shackles.
Under corporate pressure, Aurora began toning down the line by identifying “the Victim” as Doctor Deadly’s daughter, a slightly less generic personification. They also began shipping Vampirella in red plastic instead of the neutral, skin-toned gray that led some critics to declare her nude out of the box. The Pendulum was deemed beyond hope and pulled entirely.
The furor over the toys reached television: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In got a reaction from a joke about the torture toys. By December 1971, Nabisco had endured enough. After promising media they would cease production of the toys, they began to announce a recall of inventory already in stores. Treated like a contaminated product, Monster Scenes had lasted a paltry nine months.
As the 1970s wore on, Aurora returned to less controversial kits. Nabisco, flustered by the negative publicity, cut their development budget before selling the company to Monogram in 1977. Plans for a prehistoric line of kits and an extension of Monster Scenes were curtailed in the process.
The kits eventually became embraced by collectors, some of whom tried to recreate the store displays or make modifications to the existing kits. Aurora employees queried about the project expressed amazement that the toys had been perceived as sadomasochistic or misogynistic—they felt they were simply delivering the kind of exaggerated play premise that adolescent kids loved.
Decades later, toys like Electric Chair Marv—a character from Sin City who could be electrocuted on command—from McFarlane Toys would invite a similar level of controversy, though nothing that quite reached the levels of Aurora’s misstep. Their product had helped compel California legislature to pass a toy ban into law on July 1, 1972 prohibiting “torture toys” and replica grenades from being sold in the state.
As for the excess inventory: when Nabisco made the call to discontinue the kits, the remaining stock was hauled to Canada. The boxes removed the “Rated X” endorsement but kept another bit of fine print: “For ages 8 and up.”
Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation.